Some posts about the Andean novel, to go with a course by that name:
From the opening of Jorge Icaza’s novel Huasipungo, set in early twentieth-century Ecuador, the landowner, Alfonso Pereira, is presented as treading on precarious ground. He has stormed out of his house in bad humour, faced with problems that are both familial and financial: his daughter is pregnant with her indigenous boyfriend; and meanwhile he is also faced with debts and unpaid taxes. His head filled with these concerns, he is about to cross the street only to be nearly run over by a car that leaves him “trying to regain his balance on the edge of the pavement” (9). And indeed, the story that follows is the tale of Pereira’s attempts to “regain his balance” even if they involve ever-more extreme measures and grotesque abuses of the people who live on his land. Balance remains in short supply even at the end.
Pereira is presented as an almost comic character: flustered and maladroit; in over his head in the management of his family and his estate. But it is soon clear that there is a not-so-funny side to this cartoon buffoonery. On the advice of his uncle (and major creditor), Pereiras travels to his hacienda in the highlands, reluctant wife and daughter in tow, where he will, with yet more borrowed money, buy up land–and the indigenous that come with it–to build a road to the capital. The plan is to smooth the way for a firm of US prospectors, led by one “Mr Chapy,” who are apparently interested in extracting lumber from the interior–though in fact they are rather more keen on the possibility of drilling for oil. With the payout that ensues, Pereira hopes that his troubles will be at an end. And the novel shows that he will stop at nothing to ensure this happy resolution.
On the journey to the highlands, the road still as-yet unbuilt, Pereira and his family find themselves stymied by a muddy path that not even their mules can traverse. The landowner therefore calls on the indigenous servants, for them to become literally beasts of burden by carrying the Pereiras on their backs. Still persecuted by anxiety about his own troubles, and so utterly thoughtless of the weight he is placing on others’ shoulders, Pereira gives a start and causes the man carrying him to lose his footing and tumble to the ground. “Stupid Indian!” [“¡Indio pendejo!”], the master cries out “hopelessly” [“desesperado”], digging his spurs into the man’s ribs (14). His self-absorption and helplessness are hardly a joking matter now.
The name of the man who has to bear this humiliating punishment is Andrés Chiliquinga, and as the story unfolds he becomes exemplary of the suffering that the indigenous are forced to endure in the name of the landowner’s zeal to recover his economic balance, and of the gringos’ promise to bring modernization and development. Andrés first endures a horrific injury while helping to clear the land. Then his wife dies an agonizing death after eating the rotten meat that, with Pereira’s refusal to dole out the customary recompense for their otherwise unpaid labour, is all that the indigenous have to subsist on. And once the road is finally built, both he and his son die trying to protect their “huasipungo,” their small parcel of land, and its hut from being torn down to make room for the houses and offices that Mr Chapy proposes to build in their place.
In the face of all this oppression, the indigenous do not go down without a fight, rallying around the slogan “¡Ñucanchic huasipungo!”: “Our huasipungo.” And the final lines of the book suggests that this cry will resonate around the Andes. But here, at least, their cause is hopeless. But even in his victory, or perhaps especially in his victory, Pereira remains as precariously perched as ever: standing on a wall alongside Mr Chapy to look out over “the vast plain of the highlands” (113), he is once again carried away with emotion and ends up falling down once more amid “clouds of dust” to the laughter of his gringo companion (114). “We know not where we are treading” [“no sabemos donde pisamos”] is the moral he draws from this, which could be a reference to the subterranean deposits that have been driving this entire enterprise. But it may also be a delayed glimpse of the fact that, in clearing the indigenous from the land and speeding up the transition from feudalism to a capitalism dominated by foreign corporations, the hapless Pereira has simply been undermining the ground from under his own feet.
In trying to secure his position, he has achieved the opposite: he has destroyed his future by neglecting to recognize the immense indigenous contribution to the good fortune he has taken for granted. Now who will carry him through the mud?
Towards the end of Clorinda Matto de Turner’s Aves sin nido (1889), the mestizo couple Fernando and Lucía Marín, who are in effect the book’s heroes, because they are sufficiently enlightened to take pity on Peru’s indigenous peoples, are shown leaving the highland town of Kíllac where most of the novel’s plot is set. With them are two young indigenous girls, Margarita and Rosalía, their daughters who they are adopting because their parents have died, victims of violence stirred up by the town’s local authorities. There is no place for them in Kíllac, which is (as another character has declared, pages earlier) “barbaric” (49) and perhaps beyond salvation. If there is a future for the girls, it can only be in Lima, the nation’s capital and “antechamber of Heaven” from which can be glimpsed “the throne of Glory and Fortune” (80). Just as much to the point, moreover, is the fact that the Maríns themselves are hardly safe in the Andes. It was their efforts on behalf of the indigenous that provoked the disturbance in which the girls’ parents were killed. It’s time to get out of Dodge.
Along the way, headed for the train that is to be both the vehicle of their escape and potent symbol of the modernity that Kíllac so notably lacks, Fernando and Lucía mull over the dramatic events that have led them to this point. “What do you think of the things that happen?” the wife asks her husband. “I’m stunned just thinking back over the coincidences,” he replies. “Ah! Life is a novel” (140).
But life is not, of course, a novel. And when characters within a novel are made to protest otherwise, rather than heightening the realism of the events depicted, such claims instead undercut it by reminding us that it is, after all, a literary construction that we hold in our hands. The fact that the book needs to tell us that life can assume the shape of a novel is a sure sign that somehow it is failing to show us convincingly that the tale it tells is lifelike. Here, indeed, it is as though Matto de Turner were trying to prepare us for the hardly plausible plot twist with which her book ends. For it turns out that Margarita, too, is mestiza; her true father, as divulged in her mother’s dying breath, is Kíllac’s former parish priest. Worse still, her suitor, a young man named Manuel who is following along behind the family and hopes to ask the Maríns for their adopted daughter’s hand in marriage, turns out to be hiding the very same secret: he too is the lascivious priest’s bastard offspring. The would-be newly-weds are brother and sister! And with the revelation of that shocking coincidence, worthy as much of a telenovela as of a novel, the book’s plot eventually comes grinding to a halt. After all, novels end even if life has to go on.
Yet perhaps there is something lifelike (and indeed, not very novelistic) about this story’s strange and rather abrupt conclusion. For novels customarily end with some kind of resolution: a birth, a death, or a wedding, for instance. By refusing such a tidy ending, by ensuring through the scarcely believable device of making her young lovers siblings that there will be no marriage here, Matto de Turner is perhaps highlighting the artificiality of the novel form. Aves sin nido is true to life, and to Peru’s “Indian problem,” in its final recognition that it has no pat answers. Heaven can wait, as the glimpse of the throne of Glory is snatched away.
The second half of Ciro Alegría’s El mundo es ancho y ajeno is much more fragmented and dislocated than the first. This is evident even on a formal level: each chapter is shorter; we jump between storylines, often never to return; there are also temporal leaps and breathless attempts to catch up with the plot. At times, especially towards the end, it even feels as though the novel is simply running out of steam. After so much effort spent lyrically evoking the rhythms of communal life in the Andes, once the community breaks up and many of its inhabitants disperse to the four corners of Peru, Alegría only has time and energy for quick vignettes, snapshots of the indigenous people’s precarious destinies once they have been forced off their ancestral lands. Some of the former comuneros find themselves elsewhere in the Andes, either on other haciendas or in the mines; others become involved in the hard and exploitative work of harvesting coca in the foothills or rubber in the rainforest. And when the book turns to update us on the whereabouts of prodigal son Benito Castro, we get a sense of life in the coastal capital and its port, Callao, and then of Castro’s subsequent military career. But this last narrative is especially truncated: we gallop through half a dozen years of military service in two pages (489-90). It is as though a clock were ticking, faster and faster, counting down breathlessly to an apocalyptic final dénouement. The old order is ending, and we barely have time to witness its final destruction, as on the novel’s final page the state brutally represses a short-lived insurrection from Rumi’s former inhabitants.
In other words, it is as though the form of the novel itself were no longer able to contain or adequately portray its ostensible subject. In fact, perhaps it never was able to do so. If El mundo es ancho y ajeno is really, as a young Mario Vargas Llosa argued eloquently shortly after Alegría’s death in 1967, Peru’s belated foundational novel, this is a foundation that is also in some sense the end of the line. It is impossible, this book’s hurried and fragmentary second half suggests, to write the national allegory of a nation whose abiding principles are the refusal to admit that half its citizens are subjects, and the brutal curtailment of any narratives they might try to construct. Or rather, the only possible story to be told, then, is the tale of indigenous destruction from the point of view of those responsible for it. The indigenista project, exemplified by Alegría himself, of telling that tale (or any other) from the other side, is doomed from the outset.
So for all the apparent realism of Alegría’s style (Vargas Llosa describes the novel as “an epic history, told with impressionistic language and strictly realist setting: an American synthesis of Victor Hugo and Zola”), it is worth attending also to the book’s metafictional moments, which are relatively few and far between but striking when they come up. Very early on, for instance, a self-reflexive narrative voice intervenes into a description of Rumi’s mayor Rosendo Maqui and his relationship with his adoptive son, curtailing and forestalling further explanation: “We, who have broader responsibilities than Maqui does, although they are undoubtedly less important, will explain what has to be explained in due time. For the moment we do not think it opportune to clarify anything…” (34). It is many hundreds of pages later before the narrative returns to the issue, and it does so through a rather strange denial of narratorial agency, with the argument that the reader should now be able to put two and two together: “We, for our part, should recall that we postponed any explanation of the mayor’s attitude towards Benito regarding his exile from the community. Now, having seen their lives over many years, we believe the matter to be clarified by the facts themselves in all their ramifications and origins” (450). So the narrator interjects, but only so as to claim that his role is somehow superfluous. It is as though the novel were marking his voice, pointing to the narrator’s existence as a standpoint outside and beyond the indigenous community, but at the same time trying to cancel it out, to suggest that here the narrative speaks for itself.
There is a similar anxiety and ambivalence at another point that is also surely self-reflexive, a passage that features three benevolent outsiders, collectively described as “odd dandies.” In fact, despite the strangeness of their manners and dress, they are serranos (highlanders) who have spent a long time on the coast and have now returned in search of local colour (to “cazar paisajes” ). For all three are in the business of representation, if in different ways: they are a folklorist, a writer, and a painter. We meet them amid festivities celebrated in the provincial capital. Two former Rumi inhabitants are also at the festival, and they, too, are identified in terms of their roles as cultural producers: Amadeo Illas is a storyteller, and Demetrio Sumallacta, a flautist. All this almost sounds like the set-up for a joke–”A folklorist, a writer, and a painter meet a storyteller and a flautist in a bar”–but what it leads to instead is some awkward philosophizing about the role of art and its relationship to social justice. It is hard to tell the extent to which this awkwardness is part of Alegría’s satire of these dandy do-gooders, and how much it is inherent in the novelist’s own uncertainties and faltering self-expression. It is as though he were trying to suggest a framework within which to read his novel, but at the same time distancing himself from it.
The discussion is prompted by a long tale, told by Illas, about a fox who is (literally) outfoxed by a rabbit. The fox wants to eat the rabbit, but time and again he is forced to endure one humiliation after another thanks to his prey’s quick-witted trickery. At the end, the fox is convinced that the rabbit is dead, and therefore that somehow he has triumphed, but in fact the rabbit has simply managed to escape the predator’s notice. The fox cannot even recognize him when he sees him. The three dandies listen intently to this telling and offer their interpretations: “I’d dare claim that it’s symbolic,” says one, “and that in it the fox represents the overseer, and the rabbit, the Indian. And so the Indian gains his revenge, in literary form at least.” Listening to all this, the flautist, Demetrio, is bemused. “He didn’t know if that’s what the story represented, but, really, he liked the fact that for once the poor rabbit defeated the cunning and arrogant fox.” (480). And yet, in El mundo es ancho y ajeno it is the Indian who is at every turn outwitted where he is not outgunned. So perhaps this is a book that accords more with the view of the painter, who quotes the nineteenth-century Ecuadorian essayist Juan Montalvo: “If I were to write a book about the Indian, it would make America weep” (481). If an indigenist novel cannot affirm the triumph of indigenous culture (in literary form at least), it should perhaps dedicate itself to denunciation via a claim on the reader’s affects and emotions. In any case, the writer chips in, “I say that culture cannot be detached from an operative conception of justice” (483). Listening to all this, half-drunk, the flautist Demetrio is still not sure what to say. But asked to play a tune, he gives them a song about a piece of chaff waiting for the rain, much to the delight of his listeners: “That straw is hard and long-suffering like the campesino, with whom the comparison is apt,” says the writer (484).
The dandies are well-intentioned. Whatever else he thinks, Demetrio is impressed that they speak well of the indigenous, and listening to them talk of “justice” and “mankind” alongside “Indian” makes his “heart warm” (485). But they are also condescending and high-faluting, and ultimately a little useless and pathetic. Daring us to identify him with these figures, Alegría seems to recognize that their discussion does not exactly provide the basis for a literature that would denounce and take revenge on the ongoing sufferings of Peru’s indigenous communities, just as the novel was already perhaps a form unfit for the purpose of representing Peru to itself. But for the time being, it was the best he had.
Almost exactly halfway through Ciro Alegría’s renowned El mundo es ancho y ajeno comes a turning point, as the members of the indigenous community that is the Peruvian novel’s focus are forced to leave their village of Rumi, in the northern highlands. This day has long been coming, as the culmination of a fabricated legal claim from a neighbouring landlord (named Don Alvaro Amenábar), but also as the latest stage in the centuries-old and apparently inexorable process of what Marx called primitive accumulation and what geographer David Harvey terms accumulation by dispossession. Lands held in common are enclosed and privatized; the people once tied to these lands are then “freed” to become wage labourers, in this case for a mining project that the landlord hopes to establish nearby. Backed by the force of the state and a legal system shown to be absolutely corrupt, capital assimilates and privatizes common goods as it undoes social structures that have existed since time immemorial.
Alegría stresses the indigenous people’s relationship to the earth, not least in a lyrical chapter devoted to the maize and wheat harvests, which concludes that “community life acquires a palpable air of peace and uniformity and takes on its true meaning in its work on the land. Sowing, cultivation, and harvest are the veritable axis of its existence” (159). To be torn from their lands, then, implies the death of the community. And yet there are already signs of a capacity (and willingness) to change and adapt: their mayor, Rosendo Maqui, has led a project to construct a school: “Then we’ll be able to send the best kids to study… So that they may be doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers… We desperately need Indians who can listen to us, who can teach us and defend us” (154). So another side of the tragedy of their forced dispossession is that the community also have to abandon the half-built schoolhouse. But if they can rebuild and encourage at least some of the next generation to move on from the land, they might ensure that in the future they (or other indigenous communities) might win the right to stay put.
As well as being the tale of the community en masse, Alegría’s novel also undertakes frequent digressions to tell the stories of the people who comprise it or come in and out. For instance, there is a whole minor subplot about Rosendo Maqui’s grandson, Augusto, and his tentative flirtation with a young shepherdess called Marguicha. There is Nasha Suro, the witch or fortune teller, whose father had also been credited with special powers and who had once cured the landlord’s father. Or there is the unlikely pairing of sober villager Doroteo Quispe, known for his prayers, and the bandit El Fiero Vásquez, who bonds with Quispe in his eagerness to learn one of these prayers. Then there is the travelling salesman, El Mágico, who turns out to use his mobility and knowledge of the community to spy for Don Alvaro.
The central figure is perhaps Rosendo himself, the wise leader who is described early on as a “man with traces of mountain” (12). Maqui calls the community to order and negotiates on their behalf in the local town, at the same time as he tries to keep tabs on what the landlord Amenábar is up to. As such, he both records and organizes the struggle against the process by which the community is dispossessed. But there is something more. We are also told that, with his wife, he has adopted a child born to a local woman impregnated by a passing soldier during the War of the Pacific. This son, named Benito Castro and now grown up, is doubly distant from Rosendo’s lineage: both adopted and mestizo (mixed). Over the course of the narrative of the first half of the book, he is (to boot) almost entirely absent from the community. But it is suggested that the circumstances in which he left Rumi were a matter of disgrace affecting Rosendo as much as Benito himself: the “austere mayor” scarcely wants to remember the “one time” that he had “given up being just” (34). Here, the shadowy narrative voice that crops up periodically as the book proceeds now appeals directly to the novel’s readers, promising that all will be revealed in good time, and establishing Castro’s absence as a trauma haunting the entire first half of the narrative.
At this moment of crisis or point of inflection, then, it is no doubt time for the prodigal (step)son to return.
It takes a while for Rosario Castellanos’s first novel, Balún Canán, to get going. The plot, such as it is, emerges only slowly as the un-named child narrator (a young girl, seven years old) gives us glimpses into her world as the daughter of a landlord family, the Argüellos, in 1930s Chiapas. The narrator’s anonymity indicates, among other things, how easily she is overlooked: it’s her younger brother, Mario, who is son and heir to the country estate and the family name. But this gives the girl a certain freedom as, guided by her indigenous nana, she explores the sights and sounds of the town of Comitán, and is given a window onto both traditional Indian beliefs and contemporary White anxieties. And these anxieties are what gradually gives the novel shape, for it turns out that we are in a time of transition: the landowners are losing their sway as the post-revolutionary government of Lázaro Cárdenas promotes land reform and indigenous education. With the state and the law apparently on their side, farmworkers and servants are less likely to be so docile. Concerned about the rumours he’s hearing from the countryside, and taking with him an illegitimate nephew, Ernesto, to fulfill the requirement to provide a teacher for the Indians in his care, the patriarch César Argüello sets out with his family to the ancestral domain, Chactajal. It is here that the story will finally pick up speed, even if the ultimate dénouement is back in Comitán.
But it is in the countryside where the new balance of forces is most evident. Even the journey to the Argüello estate proves unusually arduous. The weather is against them, and a local village refuses to give them shelter. They have to ford a river in flood, and then Ernesto shoots a deer, in defiance (or ignorance) of native custom. In short, the prospects are ominous, and even the fiesta to welcome the family to their estate is tinged with suspicion and threat: the child narrator notes “among the shadows, the hostile gaze of those who had not wanted to attend” (71). And so, from bad to worse as the local people make unprecedented demands on the owners of the manor house, demands that are now backed up by the state in the person of a visiting agrarian inspector. The inspector is not in a mood to be swayed by such hospitality as the house can offer, even though (or perhaps because) he’s greeted as César’s stepson, possibly his illegitimate child. The report the family receive is that what he tells the Indians is that “they no longer had a boss. That they were the ones who owned the property, that they had no obligation to work for anyone else. And he sent them a signal, by raising a closed fist” (134). So however much César tries to maintain his equilibrium, the reality that his power is rapidly fraying is clear for all to see. Moreover, in a social landscape that, for the Argüellos, is defined by treason and betrayal, not the least of the challenges to his authority come from within the family itself. Ernesto, for instance, is a loose cannon who is not entirely to be trusted however much he fantasizes himself as a potential heir or even saviour of the family fortunes. And César’s wife, Zoraida, increasingly berates him for losing his grip and showing insufficient firmness against indigenous lèse-majesté.
Zoraida is in fact one of the novel’s most interesting characters. She herself was raised in poverty, so senses how much she has at stake in the struggle to maintain the social divide between white and indigenous, landowner and peon. No wonder perhaps that it is she who most powerfully and venomously articulates both the racism and the sexism that structure and (purportedly) justify it. She upbraids her husband for not being, in essence, “man enough” to defend a patrimony to which she herself has only a relatively recent claim. She is determined, moreover, that all this should be passed on to her younger child and only son, Mario. In many ways she’s a signally unsympathetic figure, although at the same time the reasons why she adopts the attitudes she does are eminently understandable. The same goes for Ernesto, a similarly complex character whose struggle with his own illegitimacy and uncertain social standing the novel takes pains to delineate without ever asking us to absolve him for his stupidity or his cruelty. Indeed, in short, perhaps Castellanos’s most impressive achievement is to have sketched out a world that is full of shades of gray and ambivalence (for on the other side, the indigenous agitator Felipe is no saint, least of all in his wife’s eyes) without ever equivocating on fundamental issues of inequality and justice. Guided often by the most marginal members of a corrupt and hitherto complacent local aristocracy, we chart their decline with empathy but not a trace of nostalgia or absolution. The novel enjoins us neither to forget their humanity nor to forgive the inhumanities of the system to which they are indebted.
Chinua Achebe’s classic novel Things Fall Apart (1958) is often seen as a riposte to European representations of African life and culture, not least for instance Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which Achebe memorably described as the work of “a thoroughgoing racist.” Achebe’s critique is that Conrad’s novella treats “Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril.” Moreover, he continues, “The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world.”
I wonder, however, about the effectiveness of this riposte. Not least because Things Fall Apart reads as an extended obituary to a vanished way of life and as such mimics a quasi-anthropological perspective on colonized cultures. However much Achebe wants to distinguish himself not only from Conrad but also from the colonial District Commissioner who features at the book’s conclusion as a would-be ethnologist contemplating writing a book to be entitled “The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of the Lower Niger” (209), he sustains rather than undermines the tropes that enable such Eurocentric visions.
Achebe’s novel is certainly obsessed with mourning and death: both the ultimate suicide of its protagonist, Okonkwo, a strongman in an Ibo village called Umuofia, and the vanishing of the precolonial customs and structures with which Okonkwo’s demise is associated. Okonkwo is an ambitious striver, whose rash actions lead first to his exile from the community and later to his killing himself (an unholy action) as he realizes that resistance to cultural invasion is apparently futile. But this has already been foretold: towards the end, after a convert interrupts a ritual performance and unmasks one of its participants, we hear that “the Mother of the Spirits walked the length and breadth of the clan, weeping for her murdered son. [. . .] Not even the oldest man in Umuofia had ever heard such a strange and terrible sound, and it was never to be heard again. It seemed as if the very soul of the tribe wept for a great evil that was coming–its own death” (187). We are, I think, to share in this sorrow, and thus to condemn the coming of the colonizers.
But such lamentation is a typical feature of colonial discourse itself, which regularly mourned–and continues to mourn–the destruction of indigenous practices and lifestyles for which it itself was and is responsible. From the cult of the “noble savage” and The Last of the Mohicans to the fascination towards supposedly uncontacted tribes from Amazonian Peru to the Andamans, imperial powers have always professed ambivalence towards the consequences of modernization and/or development. But this mourning is expressed so as to suggest that these are the inevitable victims of a progress that is unstoppable, the price we pay for so-called civilization. At the same time, the anthropological lament tells us that as soon as the pristine authenticity of the indigenous is compromised, they cease to be (really) indigenous at all. Hence, it is not only no use trying to save the victims of colonization: in that as soon as we know of them they are irredeemably transformed (acculturated, inauthentic), it is not worth saving them either.
Perhaps the success of Achebe’s book, as no doubt (and by some distance) the best-known and best-selling novel written by a black African, is due to its playing into precisely this colonial fantasy. It helps that its narrative is set in some rather vague and imprecise past: the Ibo are presented very much as people without history, whose way of life is perpetuated through constant repetition undergirded by folk memory. As the colonizers arrive, inducing a “terrible sound” never heard before and “never to be heard again,” this is the eruption of a new mode of temporality into an otherwise relatively static (at best, cyclical) way of life. Okonkwo then has to die, in a foolhardy act of useless resistance, because his life is unimaginable after the taint of Western corruption has come.
In fact, however, the Ibo (now usually called Igbo) have had a rather more interesting postcolonial history than the novel suggests. Indeed, the very notion of Igbo identity is itself largely the product of colonial contact, and led to a dramatic twentieth-century history (not least the Biafra rebellion) in which Achebe himself played a not insignificant part. But this afterlife of the I(g)bo would come as a surprise to a reader of the novel, riven through as it is with an air of chilling finality. And I would argue that this attempt (almost literally) to close the book on I(g)bo culture is as dehumanizing as anything to be found in Conrad or his ilk. For it denies them their human complexity, even as the figure of Okonkwo himself (twice over traitor to his tribe) points indirectly to the mythic dimension of the dream of precolonial purity.
For more, see my lecture on Arts One Open.